Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances

Agnes Martin and Arne Glimcher in her new truck in Galisteo, New Mexico, 1979.
Agnes Martin and Arne Glimcher in her new truck in Galisteo, New Mexico, 1979.

AGNES MARTIN’S CANVASES OF CAREFUL parallel lines and pale washes made her one of the most influential and celebrated artists of our time. Heralded as a pivotal figure for both Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, she died in 2004 at the age of ninety-two. This stunningly beautiful volume brings together more than 130 of Martin’s works with recollections of the artist by her friend and dealer, Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher. But rather than an art-historical overview, Glimcher provides an affectionate biographical glimpse into Martin’s life through snapshots of the artist and diaristic accounts of his long engagement with her and her work.

Tucked alongside reproductions of paintings are previously unpublished lecture scripts, samples of Martin’s letters to Glimcher, and other notes (including a hand-drawn map to her house). These actual-size replicas, some on parchment or yellow lined paper, are written neatly in the artist’s own script and offer intimate glimpses into her thought process, with some passages crossed out and others underlined for emphasis. Among the many pearls of offbeat wisdom are Martin’s words of advice to young artists: “Believe me you will never have any power.” Her musings on inspiration, such as “One who has become all eyes does not see,” are equally enigmatic.

Martin’s dedication and eccentricity come through even more in Glimcher’s anecdotes about his visits to her studio in New Mexico. At one point, Glimcher recalls that Martin was living on nothing but bananas and coffee as part of an effort to disregard bodily urges and focus solely on a cleansing brand of formalism. He also shares an excruciating account of helping Martin destroy paintings she felt were ruined by an imperceptible flaw. The artist lived mostly in her own head, but Glimcher does note moments of interface with the larger world, such as her almost erotic admiration for Rosalynn Carter. “Look at that face,” Martin once remarked of the former first lady. “She’s perfect.”

The photographs of Martin in her rustic surroundings are marvelous and strange, and the lurid colors unique to old Polaroids provide a bracing contrast to the restraint found in her paintings. In one image, Martin smiles along with Glimcher from the window of her new bright-orange truck, the turquoise sky brilliant behind them. In others, she sits proudly on her tractor or poses by a clothesline, her weathered face squinting in the sun.

Martin’s works, with their delicate grids, can become muted or muffled on the page, but in this book they sing out pure and strong. In his acknowledgments, the author gives thanks to Susan Medlicott, a print-production specialist who helped assure faithful image reproductions. I want to echo and amplify that gratitude: While this is a book that above all honors Martin’s achievements, it is also wholly indebted to Medlicott’s talent. Between Medlicott’s skill at making subtle colors legible and Glimcher’s ability to evoke the artist’s personality, Agnes Martin is both spare and extravagant: an apt tribute.